If Nicolas Cages’ battered, displaced entropy in Vampire’s Kiss implied anything about Cage’s messianic ability to incarnate an entire city’s mortal fever in his very body, it’s that he really should have starred in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours instead (the previous film from the same screenwriter). Ten years after Kiss, Bringing Out the Dead fulfills the prophecy. Etching moral quandary and personal quagmire, as well as mythic grime, out of the streets of New York City, Bringing Out the Dead finds Scorsese returning to his home turf, with his home turf writer Paul Schrader, in a film that feels like an extension and perversion of their galvanic 1976 social screed Taxi Driver.
Scorsese’s dominant mode, at least until around 2000, wasn’t auto-pilot but crashing planes into the ground in a mad spinning frenzy, as if he was testing his style and quivering with his characters, and Cage is a natural traveling mate. Playing Frank Pierce, a New York City paramedic working three contiguous night shifts in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, he oversees the dearly, and more often than not the nearly, departed. Played by Cage, he also trawls for meaning as a Charon-like observer in Hell’s Kitchen mutated into an almost literal purgatory for those trapped in perdition. His partners are Larry (John Goodman), Marcus (Ving Rhames), and Walls (Tom Sizemore), each a sketchily drawn worldview by Schrader, all of whom have discovered some personal mental “out” from the parade of Pyrrhic victories found in saving men and women who, as if caked in a surrealistic stupor of circular motion, always manage to return to Pierce’s jurisdiction again the next night.
As if liberated by his fame and his reunion with the filmmaker who made him famous, Schrader takes his usual opportunity to over-churn a few belabored, indignant metaphors; Pierce performs a miracle by resurrecting a man from death, a virgin gives birth with Pierce by her side, the usual Schrader head-case stuff. But Schrader’s screenplay also cannily unscrews its Christ-like allegory of a gaunt man craving to save the world and desperately unable to do so. Energized briefly by a sudden stroke of miracle when a dead, elderly man resurrects spontaneously, Pierce’s good fortune doesn’t save him but only furthers him down ladders of hell; the hospitals are over-packed grottos, doctors wish the elderly man had just passed on his way, constant episodes of lifelessness necessitate a defibrillator appended to the man like a false heart. He, like Pierce, is ensnared in the waiting room between states of life, and Pierce is woefully incapable of carving out an escape route.
Schrader’s occasional narration grafted to Cage (all about ghostly loneliness and the like) is an obvious misfire, foretelling nothing not already forewarned in Scorsese’s mise-en-scene and camera angles (whisking by objects as they mutate in the rear-view mirror, almost emptied of their tactile geometry and diffused into ghosts). And as with too many of Paul Schrader’s screenplays, desperate for transcendence to another realm but written like he has already achieved admittance to some void no mere mortal can understand, the screenplay teeters on a deranged, baroque pile-up of cloyingly allegorical signifiers (angels, ghosts, hell, all the usual suspects). As almost all of his non-Scorsese films have revealed, the man’s worldview is less repugnant than bizarre and insular, all subscribing to an aura of searching for meaning and never bothering to ask whether their definition of “search” is anything other than “flailing around in their own heads”.
Which is why Scorsese is around as his personal Charon to guide Schrader through his vision of hell with style, doubling as his interpreter to clarify Schrader’s writing through its ideal tone: askew mania. Dormant in Schrader’s directed works (the man’s visual aesthetic is too “realist” to make heads or tails of his obviously allegorical head-space as a writer), Scorsese unleashes his absurdist streak. The director wisely latches on to the writer’s mordant air of twitchy dark surrealism, with Cage’s character abused and weary of his put-upon role as a savior but unable to truly give up, prompting him to arrive late and leave early and manifest sicknesses out of thin air (and alcohol) in hopes of instigating his own firing. Rhames’ character massages an on-air paramedic call into phone sex to pass the time and pacify his inner demons through perversion, something Cage’s character obviously fails to do. Through Scorsese’s staggering, scatterbrained directorial impulses, New York is disabused of the denatured protein of cinematic reality and shuttled into the realm of sardonic elegy, with absurdist, expressionistic neurons firing in every direction.
And not just expressionism, although a midnight ghost story where Cage’s failures secrete out of the sewers like steamy discharge, cast adrift in a world, is assuredly of the German expressionist tradition. Scorsese’s omnivorous, film-crazed style is plainly a passion-fueled return to his love-bug city for the first time since 1990’s Goodfellas, a similar work of volatile humor and prismatic style, and Scorsese leaves no stone (weapons to lob at the city) unturned. Grisly, trembling mise-en-scene is omnipresent, but also, counterintuitively, shrouded in cinematographer Robert Richardson’s soft-lighting scheme, simultaneously impaling us with the grime of the world and removing us from the brunt of the terror. Thereby, the film pitches us at an existential remove much like Pierce who simultaneously acts to save his soul but desperately withholds himself, wishing to absolve himself from the antic world at the same time.
Similarly suggesting Pierce’s helplessness to truly understand this world, the sights and sounds of the urban grotto become abstracted as a light parade of colors and shapes that are merely implied, phantoms in the windows of Pierce’s ambulance, or experiences that refuse to be grasped in all their detail. The effect is pungent but lyrical, asking us to witness ubiquitous inner demons while also curbing our ability to actually confront them whole cloth. Hell is both front-and-center and perpetually in the periphery, boldface but elusive, like something at once knocking at Pierce’s door yet still somehow ungraspable. Fittingly for a film trapped between life and death, the stylistic equilibrium between blunt confrontation and mystical, withheld avoidance visualizes Pierce’s eternal snare between the innards of New York he bears witness to and the charred remains he can’t touch. The recreations of the famed through-the-vehicle-mirror views from Taxi Driver abstract the world around Pierce, expressing his travel through a world he is forever parallel to but sequestered from, a world that can only be flickers and glimmers of random energy for him.
More than anything, the style also plucks the audience from its comfort zone of illusory realism and drops them into simultaneous exploitation and poetry, dueling aesthetics that channel a multi-variegated view of the city as whirlwind ion storm and funeral procession. Although the style resuscitates remnants of Taxi Driver, never before has Scorsese doused himself in such a lurid fantasia of expressive subjectivity. In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle feels vaguely authoritarian, New York an ever-opening hell he cascades through in a taxi like a Styx-traversing ferry dressed up like a Cadillac. But in Bringing Out the Dead, Pierce is desperately out-of-control, the film mangling him, even as it secretes his inner anxieties into the world. An auditory profile of rattling, discombobulated sounds interferes with Pierce’s subjectivity, and Scorsese raises his glass to the terrifying noises and sounds that exist off-screen, but never out-of-mind. Too many critics have weathered the Scorsese demon by simply erecting the “realist” shield – “oh his films are so gritty and real!” – but Bringing Out the Dead terminates the thought, spilling over an excess of subjectivity to arouse an unwell world. It suggests New York as a perpetual out-of-body experience.
And Scorsese has a ball with it, slithering in littler filigrees of cinema as play. The director’s voice cunningly directs the characters via an intercom throughout, circumscribing Frank’s outlets for egress by aurally channeling him to his next mission. In doing so, Scorsese refracts the lens on an unseen god or devil like force mobilizing his characters through the corridors of hell against their whim. Travis Bickle was an enthusiast, an aroused, phallic, and definitely erect demon with delusions of angelic status careening through New York on his own whims. But Pierce’s virility, his control, is forever foreclosed, always prey to some potentially demonic otherworldly force only intimated through an intercom.
Structured like the waiting room to hell, ambulatory corpses littered all around, the camera equally a phantom-like glide and an alley-cat skulk, this is a volatile, manic, woolly melting point between Scorsese’s past selves dredged up in an insomniac of a film. His heedless but cautionary camera can swivel or stimulate from a largo crawl to an allegro bullet on the drop of a dime, incarnating the nosedive from solipsistic death-walker to wandering, ghostly fugue state to a burn-victim hurtling around in hell-fire. The film’s stuttering rhythms animate one of those long nights of the soul the cinematic world doesn’t really need anymore, except here the night is massaged into three days, the soul can’t really be saved, and night and day themselves are only tentative guidelines the film ruthlessly errs from. This New York is a perpetual purgatory that does not heed the edict of cause-and-effect time, but instead lingers around taunting us with the immobility of a world dropped below the threshold of the temporal realm.